Cinema Asian America: Sung H. Kim’s ‘Mighty Warriors of Comedy’

The Bay Area’s raucous, beloved and hilarious comedy sketch troupe, 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, take center stage in Sung H. Kim’s acclaimed documentary, “Mighty Warriors of Comedy,” making its premiere this month on XFINITY On Demand.

Quite possibly the world’s most psychotic Asian American Theatrical Comedy group, the 18MMW have performed since 1994 and offer a zany brand of comedy inspired by groups such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Culture Clash, SNL and Kids in the Hall. Their irreverent style of skit comedy ranges from slapstick to political and takes no prisoners.

Sung H. Kim sat down to discuss the making of “Mighty Warriors of Comedy” and the state of Asian American comedy today.

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You lived in the Bay Area for many years, which is home to the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors – how were you introduced to them, and what inspired you to make “Mighty Warriors of Comedy”?
You know how sometimes in an organization there is that person who always seems to be around, who’s not an official member, isn’t really any member’s friend but seems to be always around? Well, that was me at the Asian American Theater Company (AATC) when AATC had their own building and I was a San Francisco State University grad film student. The only small saving grace was that I watched every AATC production during that period, the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors (18MMW) shows included. I thought they were hilarious and occasionally brilliant.

I developed a sort of friendship with Michael Hornbuckle, one of their writers, and because he knew I was into filmmaking and I knew he was a writer, we sometimes said we should work together. Yeah yeah, sure. I moved to LA and we kept saying it.

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Well, I was working and raising a family, not doing anything creative and I decided maybe I can do a sort of concert film type of thing with the 18MMW. They were interested and so I filmed a ‘best of’ type show at the East-West Players Theater in L.A. I decided that we needed some backstage-type footage to augment what I filmed and as the editing took shape, I kept shooting more footage and the project slowly morphed into a documentary. I put a rough-cut together and on a whim, applied for a post-production grant. I got the grant, from CAAM and from KQED in San Francisco. We even had an impending air-date. We put it together and it aired in the Bay Area and over 70% of the country as various PBS stations picked it up. I had really low expectations for this doc, way below getting grants and broadcasts on PBS. I was just going to spend a bit of my money to satisfy my creative itch and to document my friends, who were doing amazing stuff. I did this because I believed they were one!

The film not only features a number of the 18MMW’s hilarious sketches, but also delves into deeper questions about race, comedy and representation, and asks the question of why the 18MMW, despite being incredible performers, are not known widely. Were you able to answer this question through the making of the film?
Yes, I think that question was answered but I never believed the 18MMW, without major concessions to be more mainstream, were ever going to achieve mainstream success. Concessions like replacing most of their members with non-Asians, changing their genre from sketch comedy to…anything but sketch comedy, stuff like that. So yes, being a pan-Asian sketch comedy troupe, they would have had a huge uphill climb anyway. But their brand of humor is often very political and aimed at their small core audience i.e. young, well-educated Asian-Pacific Americans, wink wink. If they did more of their silly stuff, maybe… They’re still at it, God bless them. They’ve got a YouTube channel, for example, click here.

The fact that two Asian American television networks were attempted in the last six to seven years suggests to me that there is a bunch of money, interest and energy to attempt such huge things. They failed, because they were huge endeavors and they overestimated the potential market but the creative energy, people and impetus behind those attempts are still around, so I’m optimistic about the future.

“Mighty Warriors of Comedy” was made in 2006, and it seems like the past few years have seen a real shift with respect to Asian Americans in comedy. We’ve seen the emergence of performers like Aziz Ansari, Ken Jeong, Charlyne Yi, etc. Is it a good time to be an Asian-American comedian?

Hmm, yes, I sense that too but I don’t know enough about the current comedy scene to comment. Bobby Lee appears in “Mighty Warriors of Comedy;” I interviewed him, Ken Jeong and Steve Byrne together when touring as the “Kims of Comedy”. The others deferred to Bobby Lee on most of my questions, but all three had strong opinions when I asked them about their success vis-a-vis their racial backgrounds. They all downplayed the issue of their ethnicity being a barrier, saying yeah, of course it’s there, but you have to be super talented and super driven and then things will happen. They’ve all achieved enormous success, so it’s not easy to argue with this. Maybe the many new Asian-Pacific American comedians finding success is due to this, too. Or maybe the environment is changing and becoming more friendly to minorities. Maybe both.

What is your favorite 18MMW sketch?
Well, being Korean and my wife being Japanese, it just may be the Korea-Japan sketch where planning for the Olympics between a Japanese and Korean representative gets a little testy.

What are you working on now?
I have three kids, so time is hard to find, having a day job and all. I’m just writing when I can, eager to do something, but I need to have a strong script to start raising money for etc. I want to return to narrative filmmaking and I’m looking at making a low-budget martial arts film. Don’t laugh!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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